'Winnable' games that got away piling up around Joker

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) -- Of his many accomplishments as Kentucky’s head football coach, perhaps the one that gave Rich Brooks his most enduring legacy was the ability to slow the growing number of losses that could have been, and perhaps, should have been, victories. He didn’t completely stop them, but he managed to buck the trend.

If Joker Phillips’ tenure at UK ends in 2012, it will be for a number of reasons – and winnable games that got away will be a big one.

For all the years he has invested in college football, Phillips is still a “young” head coach, in only his third season. He’s made questionable decisions during games that came back to haunt him later. Switching quarterbacks after his team had made back-to-back scoring drives at Missouri had Phillips second-guessing himself later.

Brooks arrived with the benefit of more than two decades as a head coach in college and in the NFL and still, some potential victories slipped away.

In 2003, Brooks’ first season at UK, the Wildcats battled Alabama to a 10-point loss in Tuscaloosa. They fell by six at South Carolina and let Arkansas get away with a 71-63 (7 OT) victory in Commonwealth Stadium.

In ’04, the Cats blew chances to knock off Florida, South Carolina (again) and Tennessee in Knoxville – Joker Phillips’ first game as offensive coordinator.

During the 2005 season, when the NCAA sanctions had cut scholarship numbers the deepest, UK still had a shot at U of L, falling by just a touchdown in Lexington. And it missed winning at Ole Miss by a touchdown as well.

The ’06 season saw more missed chances with USC and Tennessee, but the Cats won enough games to save Brooks’ job and earn a bowl bid – including an upset of Georgia and an SEC road victory at Mississippi State.

There were a few other blown opportunities but under Brooks, the Wildcats eventually developed enough talent to where they were able to put away victories that in the past would slip away in the gut-wrenching final minutes of the fourth quarter – chief among them, the overtime upset of top-ranked LSU.

The contest the Wildcats played in Columbia Saturday afternoon never materialized as one that might be decided in the final moments, but it should have. A Tigers team not nearly as banged-up as UK, but still with a notable number of injuries, was vulnerable. They were missing their starting quarterback, the catalyst in a spread offense that on a normal day might have racked up a massive amount of yardage against a struggling Kentucky defense.

But with an immobile redshirt freshman starting at QB, Mizzou could amass only 273 total yards, although two huge defensive plays (including a scoop-and-score) helped skew the overall numbers.

Still, a victory was doable – which is why the Wildcats professed surprise and disappointment that they didn’t come home with their first conference victory of the season.

“It’s tough, because we knew we were better than those guys,” tailback Raymond Sanders told the Courier-Journal. “I feel like we should’ve won. We just handed the game to them.”

There have been other “winnable” games on the worksheet this season – not the least of which was the homefield loss to Western Kentucky, a team that has gone on to prove merit in its own right. Still, minus the four interceptions thrown by Max Smith, the Wildcats likely win a game that came down to the last play in overtime.

Last season saw the Cats let Louisville come into Lexington with an inferior team and leave with a win. Mississippi State did the same thing, although Kentucky DID finally end that nightmare of a losing streak against Tennessee.

And you’d have to think any game with Vanderbilt is winnable, as the Commodores and Kentucky seem to have led parallel lives in the annals of SEC football. But the ‘Dores blew the doors off the Wildcats in Nashville last year, 38-7, on one of the few days Phillips’ team seemed to be going through the motions.

Phillips’ first season as UK’s head coach did see the Wildcats snap another long skid, beating Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. But that victory followed back-to-back missed opportunities.

Kentucky suffered a rash of fumbles, including one by the ever-reliable Randall Cobb, in a 42-35 setback in Oxford against a Mississippi team that would fail to win another SEC game that season.

The Cats came back the following week and played brilliantly against Auburn, falling 37-34 as the Tigers’ kicked a last-second field. Cam Newton would go on to lead Auburn to the NCAA championship, beating Oregon on another last-second field goal.

The Wildcats left victories on the field both in Starkville and Knoxville that season as well, one that did end with a 6-6 record and a bowl bid. But seven or eight victories in 2010 with a trip to somewhere other than the BBVA Compass Bowl at decrepit Legion Field in Birmingham would have provided sweat equity that might have come in handy right now for Phillips and his staff.

There’s no substitute for talent – unless it’s experienced talent versus raw ability. Brooks’ UK squads had the former during the ’06 and ’07 seasons, the best years of his tenure. He and his assistants were virtually the same guys (with a couple of exceptions) who inherited that mess in 2003. And as losses initially piled up, fans screamed for change.

What changed were the players. Brooks and his staff brought in more speed, a better caliber of athlete, and it paid off. A lot of the Wildcats who made plays that ensured victories over the likes of Georgia, Arkansas and LSU are now in the NFL.

Phillips’ current team has talent, but most of it is in the freshmen and sophomore classes. As they mature and develop their respective abilities, they’ll learn about what it takes to win in the SEC.

And provided that whoever is in charge of the program keeps adding talent to the roster, Kentucky should get back to the business of winning “winnable” games, and not blowing the rare opportunity to pull off an upset, the kind of game that was so elusive in the past.

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